I went to the National Book Awards ceremony in New York last month for a very simple reason. I wanted to tell James McBride, in person, what I’m going to tell you now: his novel, The Good Lord Bird, one of five finalists for the fiction award, is the most astonishing book I read all year. It’s one of the most astonishing, rollicking, delightful, smart and sad books I’ve read in all my life.
“Why, thank you very much,” McBride said from under the brim of his porkpie hat when I bumped into him at the pre-awards cocktail party and told him how I felt about his book. When I wished him luck at the awards ceremony later in the evening and told him I was pulling for him to win, he waved his arm at the cavernous banquet room and said, “At this point it doesn’t really matter. It’s all good.”
I didn’t expect McBride to win the National Book Award that night because he was up against bigger names — Thomas Pynchon, George Saunders, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Rachel Kushner — and I long ago stopped believing that artistic awards are based solely on artistic merit. McBride obviously didn’t expect to win, either, because when his name was called out as the winner for fiction, he stepped to the podium without a prepared speech, visibly surprised. “I didn’t think I would win today,” he told the crowd of 700. Then, echoing what he had said to me earlier at the cocktail party, he added, “If any of the others writers had won I wouldn’t feel bad because they’re all fine writers. But it sure is nice to win.”
And it sure is nice to see such a deserving winner. The Good Lord Bird is narrated by Henry Shackleford, a young slave in the Kansas territory who is freed by the abolitionist John Brown, then, passing as a girl, follows Brown on his various military and political campaigns, all the way to the disastrous raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, a major catalyst for the Civil War. (The book’s title refers to the red-headed woodpecker, a bird whose feathers serve as charms, a bird so beautiful that when people see one, they cry, “Good Lord.”) Henry, known as Henrietta or “Onion” to Brown and his ragtag army, narrates the story in a frontier vernacular that is by turns hilarious, bawdy, and wise. Her sharpest insights are on race and slavery, and they’re as valid today as they were a century and a half ago. No one, black or white, slave or free, gets a free ride from Henrietta Shackleford, including Henrietta Shackleford. Here, for instance, are her thoughts on the lies black people tell themselves: “Fact is, I never knowed a Negro from that day to this but who couldn’t lie to themselves about their own evil while pointing out the white man’s wrong, and I weren’t no exception.” And here’s Henrietta on what it means to be black: “Being a Negro means showing your best face to the white man every day. You know his wants, his needs, and watch him proper. But he don’t know your wants. He don’t know your needs or feelings or what’s inside you, for you ain’t equal to him in no measure. You just a nigger to him. A thing: like a dog or a shovel or a horse.”
The novel has obvious antecedents in the works of Twain and Cervantes, James Baldwin and William Styron. But its framing device — even its opening lines — owe a debt to another tall tale insinuated from American history, Thomas Berger’s indelible epic of the Indian wars, Little Big Man. That novel purports to be the tape-recorded reminiscences of 111-year-old Jack Crabb, a white man who was snatched by Cheyenne Indians as a boy and grew up straddling the racial divide, living with both Indians and whites, finally fighting alongside Gen. George Armstrong Custer and becoming the only white survivor of the Battle of Little Bighorn.
The Good Lord Bird purports to be the reminiscences of 111-year-old Henry Shackleford, written down by a preacher in 1942, then locked away and finally salvaged from a church fire in 1966. Instead of straddling the racial divide, Henry crosses other lines — between male and female, freeman and slave, country rube and city slicker — and he winds up in the heat of battle alongside John Brown, becoming the only black survivor of the raid on Harpers Ferry.
Here’s the opening of The Good Lord Bird: “I was born a colored man and don’t you forget it. But I lived as a colored woman for seventeen years.” And here’s the opening of Little Big Man: “I am a white man and never forget it, but I was brought up by the Cheyenne Indians from the age of ten.” Even the climactic battle scenes share a chapter title: McBride’s is “Last Stand”; Berger’s is “The Last Stand.” (In a follow-up e-mail, McBride acknowledged Berger’s influence, adding that he also drew on the writings of Leon Litwack and Daryl Cumber Dance.)
I don’t buy books or movie tickets based on awards, and I’m proud to be able to say that I bought my copy of The Good Lord Bird before it was nominated for the National Book Award and I finished reading it before the awards ceremony. That’s not to say I’m opposed to book awards. As they long as they connect readers with writers — and sell books — I’m all for them. McBride’s publisher, Riverhead Books, announced that it was printing an additional 45,000 copies of The Good Lord Bird as soon as the award was announced, bringing the number in print to more than 82,000. I hope they sell like Krispy Kremes. James McBride is an important and thrilling writer, and he deserves to be widely read.
None of the above is to denigrate the other four fiction finalists for this year’s National Book Award. As McBride put it, they are all fine writers. Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, in particular, struck me as a book that announced the arrival of a major talent. The novel, which roams from the Bonneville salt flats to the downtown New York art scene of the 1970s to the political barricades in Italy, was a stirring expansion of the promise Kushner showed in her 2008 debut, Telex From Cuba, which was also a National Book Award finalist. Both novels exhibit Kushner’s outsized gifts: her ambition, her narrative dexterity, her ability to paint complex characters and put them in motion in vividly imagined historical settings. Whether she’s writing about the First World War, pre-revolutionary Cuba, or the 1970s art scene, Kushner succeeds because she understands how to handle her prodigious historical research. As she told an interviewer, “Just because something is true does not mean it has a place.”
There were other delights this year. One of the chiefest, because it was so personal, was the publication of Keystone Corruption: A Pennsylvania Insider’s View of a State Gone Wrong, a sweeping history of the chicanery that has been festering under the state capitol’s green dome in Harrisburg, Pa., for more than a century. It was written by a veteran shoe-leather reporter named Brad Bumsted, who happens to be the man who took me under his wing and taught me the reporter’s craft at the daily newspaper in nearby Chambersburg, Pa., back in the 1970s. As I wrote in my essay about Keystone Corruption, “Brad is an important reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Good journalism still matters, it still happens, and it is still built on what it was originally built on — not technological innovations, but on the ability of dogged, savvy, intelligent reporters to gather information and quickly turn it into factual, even-handed, and engaging prose. Few people have done it longer than Brad Bumsted. Few do it better.”
Though it was published late last year, I’ve got to mention a gem of a book that should burnish the reputation of a writer who has written five novels that are classics, even though too few people have read them. Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany, edited by Jay Jennings, is a great teeming smorgasbord of Portis’s journalism, travel writing, short stories, drama and memoir. The book also includes a rare interview with Portis and tributes from admirers, including Roy Blount Jr., Ed Park, and Donna Tartt. In addition to its abundant wit and wisdom, this book is virtually a connect-the-dots diagram of how Portis the novelist was forged in newspaper city rooms in Tennessee, Arkansas and New York. I hope it will attract new readers to Portis’s novels, Norwood, True Grit, The Dog of the South, Masters of Atlantis, and Gringos.
Another writer who deserves a wider audience is Nick Turse, who produced a magisterial work of history this year called Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. Turse argues, persuasively and chillingly, that the mass rape, torture, mutilation ,and slaughter of Vietnamese civilians was not an aberration — not a one-off atrocity called My Lai — but rather the systematized policy of the American war machine. This book’s lessons, like James McBride’s insights on race, are as valid today as they were when America was blundering its way to a shameful military disaster four decades ago.
A pleasant surprise landed in my mailbox in April — a handsome new paperback edition of They Don’t Dance Much, the only novel James Ross published in his lifetime, now widely regarded as the progenitor of “country noir.” This new edition, published by Mysterious Press, includes a foreword by Daniel Woodrell, a Ross acolyte who says he first read the novel in the 1970s because George V. Higgins “vouched for it as both literature and a good time.” A funny, bloody, world-wise tale of violent doings at a North Carolina roadhouse during the Depression, the book was published in 1940 to high praise from Flannery O’Connor, among others, but it sold poorly and soon disappeared. A new edition appeared in the 1970s, attracting a new generation of fans, including Woodrell. And now, another three and a half decades after the second edition, we have a third. As Woodrell writes, “They Don’t Dance Much, a novel that was often declared dead but has never been successfully buried, offers a persuasive portrait of a rough-and-ready America as seen from below, a literary marvel that is once again on its feet and wending its way toward the light.”
Last but far from least, this year the Irish writer Kevin Barry followed up his blistering novel, City of Bohane, with an equally strong collection of stories called Dark Lies the Island. The man uses the English language like a musical instrument. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: You must read Kevin Barry.
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